Confidence in recent album Pompeii is evident in a set of ever-developing, ever-shifting art-pop that also finds space for tracks from Reward and a cover paying tribute to her truest artistic ancestor
Towards the end of her performance at the Mill, Cate Le Bon thanked the audience for coming out during what is – and presumably will continue to remain – a strange time to be assembled in a room with hundreds of people. Putting aside the fact that Digbeth’s the Mill is one of the strangest live venues I’ve ever had the experience of visiting, owing in no small measure to the seemingly endless sheets of corrugated steel and overwhelming citric pungency of urinal cakes emanating from the bare-bricked Gents’ WC, the gig itself didn’t feel strange at all.
Cate Le Bon’s ever-developing, ever-shifting art-pop has a tendency to fit whatever mood her relentless creative brain is inhabiting at the time of its creation, and often the live performances cast off older songs in favour of her most recent material. Last time I saw her, she was supporting Deerhunter at another strange Birmingham venue, the Crossing, and her setlist was culled from her then-current release Reward, peppered with three selections from the previous LP Crab Day. Nothing else remained. The first time I saw her, she was supporting The Brian Jonestown Massacre across the city centre, and not a single song, or even a hint of what she once was, has survived.
This time, at the Mill, the setlist was almost evenly split between her current album Pompeii, and the aforementioned 2019 classic Reward. And that was how it remained, until a curiously uplifting encore (more on that later). This confidence in her most recent material is testament to Cate’s ever-shifting vision, and the crowd are more than happy to oblige her.
The set opened with a trilogy of the more reserved, staid selections from Pompeii, with each receiving a warmer reception from the last – the dense, smoky Dirt On The Bed was followed by French Boys and then the wonderful, wonderful Moderation. The first of the songs from Reward, Daylight Matters, seamlessly wove itself into the tapestry of the other songs, before then ceding the stage to another three selections from Pompeii (the title track, Running Away and Cry Me Old Trouble). Then, after all the slick art-pop stylings and strictly-structured rhythms, something magical happens.
During the concluding section of Mother’s Mother’s Magazines, which in of itself is a wonderful thing with its proto-New Wave reggae flavour and supple guitars, the band actually fall into what can only be described as a jam. A jam! And what a thing it was to behold, all wobbly and gelatinous like someone had scraped out the middle of a thousand pork pies and set them a-wobblin’. If you’ve not heard the album, or seen the truly definitive version of the track from Jools Holland, seek it out immediately.
The rest of the superb set was equally enthralling. New song Harbour works, in every way. Miami, The Light and Home To You all hit with more emotional heft now that they’ve weathered a pandemic and come through the other side. Miami in particular may be my new favourite Cate Le Bon song. Or possibly Harbour.
Then came that encore. Stupidly (I always do it), I checked the setlist for the tour before the show, and found that the setlist has remained the same since the first date. For some, this is a good thing, as it ensures they don’t miss out on what other crowds have seen. For others, this is a travesty, as it limits any spontaneity or genuine musical connection with the audience or the show. As it is, I don’t much care either way, but I ruined something great for myself by checking.
The final song, dedicated to everyone in the crowd, was “one of” Cate Le Bon’s favourite John Cale songs (I’d imagine she has a few), Big White Cloud. To have gone through an entire set made up of selections from two albums released within the last three years, only to finish with a song first released 52 years ago this very week, is a masterstroke. It pays homage to Cate Le Bon’s truest artistic ancestor in Cale, his legacy as an art rock auteur, and the cultural heritage of Cymru itself. It’s also a fantastic song to end a fantastic evening in the presence of a fantastic artist. Wonderful wonderful wonderful.